SEC: Curt Maggit

ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. is rolling out his early top five rankings at each position this week.

Here are the positions he's looked at so far:
Now, we're checking out the top linebacker prospects for next year's NFL draft. Kiper divided things up to look at outside linebackers and inside linebackers . I'm just combing the two to make things easier for everyone.

When it comes to outside linebackers, Alabama's Adrian Hubbard comes in at No. 2 on Kiper's list. Hubbard led Alabama with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season. He has what it takes to be an elite pass-rusher in the SEC, but he still has some growing to do. He has great speed, but just has to stay consistent with his speed off the edge. He's a player who Nick Saban is very excited about in 2013.

Other draft-eligible outside linebackers I'll keep an eye on this fall:
  • Tahj Jones, LSU: An academic issue kept him out of all but one game last year, but Jones should start at one of the outside spots for the Tigers this fall. He's been very productive in the 28 games he's appeared in.
  • Ronald Powell, Florida: He's coming off two ACL injuries and will be a hybrid defensive end as well. Powell was the top recruit a couple of years ago and had his best spring last year before his injury. He has all the skill to be a top-notch pass-rusher.
  • Steven Jenkins, Texas A&M: He's versatile and experienced enough to play both outside and inside. He grabbed 79 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and two sacks last year.
  • Deontae Skinner, Mississippi State: He was a little overlooked last year at his position, but Skinner is a player. He grabbed 62 tackles last year, including five for loss and forced a fumble.


As for the inside linebackers, Kiper went SEC-heavy with his top five. Alabama's C.J. Mosley comes in at No. 1 in Kiper's top five, while Trey DePriest ranks second, and Tennessee's A.J. Johnson ranks fourth.

Mosley flirted with leaving early for the NFL this year, but he will likely enhance his draft stock with one more year at Alabama. He can be an extremely aggressive player in the run, but also knows how to drop back into coverage to make plays. He's an extremely smart player and will be relied upon to be the quarterback of Bama's defense.

Joining Mosley in the middle is DePriest, who might be bigger than Mosley but is also pretty good in coverage. He's tough against the run and can get after the quarterback as well. He also puts his strength to good use on the field.

Johnson has really blossomed since arriving at Tennessee in 2011. Last year, he led the SEC with 138 tackles and continued to develop pretty much every area of his game. A lot of people think he could be a first-round draft pick next year.

Other draft-eligible inside linebackers I'll keep an eye on:
  • Lamin Barrow, LSU: He's LSU's top returning tackler (104) and he'll take over as the Tigers' defensive captain. He's a very versatile player and can play both inside and outside if needed.
  • Chase Garnham, Vanderbilt: He might not have received the same sort of attention as his fellow middle linebackers last year, but Garnham is a solid player. He not only registered 84 tackles last year but he led Vandy with seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss.
  • Mike Marry, Ole Miss: He's a fierce competitor and worker for the Rebels. He's become a true leader with both his words and play, coming away with 78 tackles, including 10.5 for loss last year.
  • Curt Maggit, Tennessee: He's another player who is versatile to play both inside and outside. He's coming off an ACL injury but should be ready to go this fall.
  • Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: The redshirt sophomore was extremely busy during his first year on the field in 2012, collecting 102 tackles. He should be looked at as one of the top inside linebackers in the SEC this fall.
  • Andrew Wilson, Missouri: The old man of Mizzou's linebacking corps has a ton of experience -- and tackles -- under his belt. He can make plays against the run and the pass.
2012 record: 5-7

2012 conference record: 1-7, (sixth, Eastern Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 5; Defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Rajion Neal, RB Marlin Lane, OT Antonio Richardson, OT Ja’Wuan James, LB A.J. Johnson, LB Curt Maggit, S Brian Randolph, S Byron Moore

Key losses

QB Tyler Bray, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, WR Justin Hunter, OG Dallas Thomas, TE Mychal Rivera, DE Darrington Sentimore, LB Herman Lathers, CB Prentiss Waggner

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Rajion Neal* (708 yards)
Passing: Tyler Bray (3,612 yards)
Receiving: Justin Hunter (1,083 yards)
Tackles: A.J. Johnson* (138)
Sacks: Darrington Sentimore (4)
Interceptions: Byron Moore* (5)

Spring answers

1. Buying into the new staff: There are always those awkward first moments with a new coaching staff, but the Vols seemed to go through spring pretty smoothly with new coach Butch Jones and his staff. This team didn’t have time to question Jones and his guys because the program has been trending downward for sometime now. Thanks to Jones, you could tell there was a lot more excitement in Knoxville this spring.

2. Defensive comfort: It looks like Tennessee’s defense adjusted back to a 4-3 defense will this spring. After struggling all year with the SEC’s worst defense in a 3-4 scheme under Sal Sunseri, Vols defenders really took to defensive coordinator John Jancek’s 4-3. With good experience coming back in the front seven, which proved to be a much more aggressive front this spring. If those guys continue to improve, it will help mask some of the issues in the secondary.

3. Sapp's emergence: With Herman Lathers gone, the Vols were in search of a valuable replacement, and it looks like they found it in senior Dontavis Sapp. He entered the spring with just two career starts and was Lathers' backup at the Will spot last year, but was Tennessee's most consistent defender this spring. His development this spring was very important with Curt Maggitt out for the spring while he recovered from the ACL injury he suffered last fall.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback competition: Jones left the spring saying that both Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman were about even for the starting quarterback spot. Worley was a little more consistent this spring and has game experience, but Jones is now putting the team in their hands, as they head into the summer. This competition won’t officially be decided until fall camp, so neither can afford to slip now.

2. Wide receiver issues: The Vols lost 2,914 yards and 26 touchdowns from their top four pass-catchers in 2012. Tennessee is in desperate need of finding quality replacements to help its inexperienced quarterbacks this fall. Pig Howard is expected to make an impact this fall, but struggled this spring. Sophomore Cody Blanc showed good strides, and the staff needs more out of redshirt freshmen Drae Bowles and Jason Croom.

3. Thin secondary: Tennessee still has some work to do in its secondary. Brian Randolph's return will be nice, but the numbers are still thin throughout the defensive backfield, especially at cornerback. Justin Coleman emerged as the Vols' top option at corner, but the spot opposite him still hasn't been determined. Having Eric Gordon away from the team for disciplinary reasons doesn't help, either. There were signs of improvement from the secondary, but it's still very much a work in progress.

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